'Smash' show 390.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The exultant anticipatory buzz preceding the premiere of NBC’s Smash has grown
so intense that the conversation is no longer about whether it’s any good
(“Good? Darling, it’s great!”) or if it will be a hit for a network that needs
one. Instead, everyone’s wondering why no one thought of doing this kind of show
before. “This kind of show” being a spare-no-expense showcase chronicling the
gestational stages of a Broadway musical. Chorus boys! Dueling divas!
Post-audition meltdowns! I’ll tell you why: Because it’s extremely difficult to
The wonder of Smash is not that it’s a grown-up Glee (it isn’t) or
that it stars American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee (bringing the modern
evolution of musical television full circle) or that the show-within-the-show –
Marilyn: The Musical – seems prepped and ready for a real Broadway
It’s that creator Theresa Rebeck and her team have managed to
capture the grand and sweeping gesture that is musical theater and inject it
with the immediate intimacy of television.
Or maybe it’s the other way
around. Either way, no one’s ever done it before. At least not
Theater and television may tell similar stories, but they do it
very differently. The stage is big; the TV screen is small. Onstage, actors play
to the front row and the balcony; on television, actors play to the camera,
often mere inches away. Theater is at once more bombastic than television and
more minimalist – a bare platform can be a balcony, a car, a bedroom.
creators of Smash
honor both genres, and what easily could have lurched across
the screen like some dramatic-arts Frankenstein is instead as supple as a
showgirl. Without benefit of voice-over, green-screen or any other narrative
moves effortlessly between the broad strokes of the musical –
“Hey, I’ve got an idea for a show, and (pause, jot-jot, plink, plink) here’s the
first number!” – and the more personal demands of TV, giving the characters just
as much attention as the choreography.
Embodying this embrace of two
worlds are the women competing for the big part in Smash.
Megan Hilty, who plays
longtime trouper Ivy, is a real Broadway star, and you can tell the moment she
shows up. With her enormous eyes, big singer’s mouth and delightful curves,
Hilty has much more oomph than most women on television are generally allowed.
By contrast, McPhee’s Karen is decidedly waifish in her charms, a fact wisely
acknowledged by the characters trying to decide between them as they cast the
starring role in Marilyn: The Musical.
Marilyn is a new play emerging,
even as the show progresses, from the pad and piano of Julia Houston (Debra
Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), longtime collaborators who love each
other in the way only straight women and gay men can love in a show like this
Although Julia has promised her (loving, dull) husband Frank (Brian
d’Arcy James) that she is going to take time off from being part of “Broadway’s
hottest team” to adopt a baby daughter, the mere mention of Monroe as a musical
subject is far too tantalizing. Before you can say “Joltin’ Joe,” she and Tom
are cranking out a number and catching the attention of Big Time Producer Eileen
(Anjelica Huston). Whose ugly divorce proceedings have frozen all her assets
including, wouldn’t you know it, a new production of My Fair Lady.
frees up the lascivious but super-talented director Derek Wills (Jack
Davenport). Whom Eileen snags and offers to Julia and Tom, waving away their
but-we-only-have-onenumber bewilderment even as she pencils in the out-of-town
It’s all totally absurd, of course, but in a breathlessly
wide-eyed and knowing way that is terrific fun to watch. And for every bit of
bizarre business (are Julia and Frank the only people on the planet who do not
know it takes a long time to adopt a baby from China?), there are seven or eight
real-life details (“We are not the chorus, we are the ensemble”) to keep things
from floating too high into the rafters.
The return of Messing to network
television doesn’t hurt, either.
Swathed in Creative Type scarves,
colorful Tina-Fey specs and that signature hair, her Julia is both endearing and
irritating. As are most of the characters, each a promising balance of one thing
and another – in early episodes, Hilty’s Ivy especially vacillates between ego
and insecurity in a most convincing and moving way.
Not that Smash is to
be confused with a moody character study or a biting backstage satire. This is
one big unapologetic feather-headress-waving, sequined derriere-twitching,
high-note-holding love song to the siren call of song, dance and the theatrical
But if there is no adversity, there can be no triumph. And Smash
Smash debuts on Thursday on HOT 3 (H3)
at 10:30 p.m and 1 a.m.